The impact of the gaspee affair on the coming of the revolution, 1772-1773

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instructions, it was obvious that Dartmouth would not confide in Wanton any of the ministry's intentions regarding the Gaspee commission. Any change in attitude in the ministry's "design" would likely have been communicated to such confidantes as Frederick Smythe or Peter Oliver, perhaps Daniel Horsmanden.

On May 25, after a recess of some four months, Robert Auchmuty


42 Lord Dartmouth to Joseph Wanton, Whitehall, 10 April, 1773, Collected Letters from 1731 to 1849, VII, Item 97, Rhode Island State Archives.

43 Ibid.


and Peter Oliver joined Wanton in Newport, completing the necessary quorum for business.44 The commission resumed its hearings the following day as anticipated, although it was decided to forego all important matters until the arrival of Horsmanden and Smythe. They arrived in Newport by the end of the month.45

Although Montagu considered the possibility of going to Newport in early June if his vessel (the Captain) arrived from Halifax on schedule, he gave no other indication of a willingness to make the trip. He was more than eager to delegate his duties to the senior officer at Newport, Robert Keeler, who could boast the title of commodore for the time being " 46 However, Commodore Keeler was most reluctant to come ashore in the exercise of his new authority. Several writs had been taken out for his arrest regarding seizures made by him some time ago. He made arrangements to have Midshipman Dickinson and mariner Cheever escorted to the council chamber by one of his officers, whenever their presence should be requested.47 As no one in Rhode Island


44 Newport Mercury, 31 May, 1773.

45 Commissioners to Robert Keeler, Newport, 27 May, 1773, Gaspee Papers, Rhode Island State Archives. John R. Bartlett, ed., Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England (Providence: 1857), VII, 166. W.R. Staples, The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee (Knowles, Vose and Anthony, 1845), p. 43, University microfilms, American Culture Series, University of Michigan.

46 Newport Mercury. 12 April, 1773.

47 Robert Keeler to Joseph wanton, Esq., President of his Majesty's Commission at Newport, Rhode Island, Mercury, in Rhode Island Harbor, 27 May, 1773, Gaspee Papers, Rhode Island State Archives. Bartlett, Records, VII, 166. Staples, Documentary History, p. 43, University microfilms, American Culture Series, University of Michigan.


could be entirely sure just what these two British navy personnel were privy to, their presence on board the Mercury and their impending testimony made Newporters a bit edgy. The Newport Mercury acknowledged their arrival and the fact that they had been sent hither ". . . to support some extraordinary charges." 48

Dickinson and Cheever testified on June 1. Although the midshipman did not know the names of any of the participants, he claimed that he could identify the men who called themselves the captain and the sheriff.49 But in the absence of apprehended suspects, his evidence was useless. A physical description of the alleged leader of the attackers was the most he could offer. One, referred to as the captain, was a well-dressed, swarthy, robust man, with a hoarse voice and a full face.50 His description of the head sheriff, a tall genteel man, was even more elusive. Dickinson had also observed the two surgeons who dressed Dudingston's wounds. One was a man of about eighteen years. He was approximately five feet six inches tall; he had light brown hair, and his face was marred with small pox scars; the other surgeon was a tall, thin, genteel man of about twenty-two, five feet eight inches tall.


48 Newport Mercury, 31 May, 1773.

49 John Montagu to the Commissioners, Boston, 24 May, 1773, Gaspee Papers, Rhode Island State Archives. Staples, Documentary History, p. 43, University microfilms, American Culture Series, University of Michigan.

50 Deposition of William Dickinson, 1 June, 1773, Gaspee Papers, Rhode Island State Archives, Bartlett, Records, VII. 167-69. Staples, Documentary History, pp. 44-45, University microfilms, American Culture Series, University of Michigan.


Dickinson had observed several blacks on board as well, although he could offer no names.51 Like Dickinson, Cheever saw the people who had burned the schooner. Again while at Pawtuxet, he encountered two of the participants. But his ability to identify was dependent upon the apprehension of suspects.52

The commissioners had issued several summonses to witnesses who had been called in January. Providence attorney John Cole, heeding the advice of Chief Justice Hopkins, appeared at the council chamber on June 3: on his way to Sabin's Tavern on the evening of June 9, 1772, someone had told him (although he could not remember who) that the Gaspee had run aground. But he denied knowing the identity of any who had participated in the plan, or in fact that there was a plan.53

Judge John Andrews had also been summoned by the commission in January. Like Cole he made no connection between the beating drum and the plan to destroy the schooner. Consequently it was his surprise to learn of the vessel's destruction the next morning. Having gone along with Darius Sessions to visit Dudingston at Pawtuxet, Andrews could recount the efforts


51 Ibid.

52 Deposition of Bartholomew Cheever, 1 June, 1773, Gaspee Papers, Rhode Island State Archives. Bartlett, Records, VII, 169-70. Staples, Documentary History, p. 45, University microfilms, American Culture Series, University of Michigan.

53 Examination of John Cole, 3 June, 1773, Gaspee Papers, Rhode Island State Archive's, Bartlett, Records, VII, 170. Staples, Documentary History, p. 45, University microfilms, American Culture Series, University of Michigan.


which the Deputy Governor had made to assure the comfort and safety of the Gaspee crew and its wounded commander. A vain attempt was made to acquire information concerning the perpetrators, because Dudingston refused to lend his assistance.54

Along with Cole and Andrews, George Brown had also dined at Sabin's that night. His testimony corroborated Cole's statement. Cole and Brown had protested the commission's powers and constitutionality when they were first called to testify. Perhaps there was motive in their careful designation of the schooner's location at Warwick township, Kent County, Rhode Island; 55 they seemed to be saying that the act of destruction had occurred within the colony's boundaries and was unmistakably within the jurisdiction of the colony's courts. As in January, James Sabin, Daniel Hitchcock, Arthur Fenner and Saul Ramsdale declined to attend.56

One of the witnesses, James Helme, was an associate justice of the Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize, and General Goal Delivery. He had presided at the October session. Despite the fact that it was not the


54 Deposition of John Andrews, 5 June, 1773, Gaspee Papers, Rhode Island State Archives, Bartlett, Records, VII, 171. Staples. Documentary History, pp. 45-46, University microfilms, American Culture Series, University of Michigan.

55 Examination of George Brown, Newport, 5 June, 1773, Gaspee Papers, Rhode Island State Archives. Bartlett, Records, VII. 172-73. Staples, Documentary History, pp. 46-47, University microfilms, American Culture Series, University of Michigan.

56 Deposition of William Mumford, Jr., Newport, 5 June, 1773, Gaspee Papers, Rhode Island State Archives.


established procedure for a judge to give a general or specific charge to the grand jury, Helme promised himself that he would so charge the jury with an investigation into the attack, if he were the presiding judge. He was privileged to preside over the court when he returned from two months on the circuit. He said that his absence of several weeks was responsible for his forgetting entirely about the attack. As outrageous as it sounded, Judge Helme pretended to be oblivious to the current topic of conversation in Rhode Island! He never mentioned the Gaspee affair to the Grand Jury in October, 1772. 57

The commissioners had heard from six witnesses: Midshipman William Dickinson, Mariner Bartholomew Cheever, Attorneys John Cole, and George Brown, and Judges John Andrews and James Helme. It was obvious that the weather had little to do with the accessibility of witnesses. January's snows had brought more testimony than the mild spring weather had. Because of the remote likelihood of the examination of additional deponents, the commissioners were ready to submit their findings to Rhode Island's superior court.58

Initially Chief Justice Hopkins was resistant to the request that he appear. His reluctance to afford the commissioners any legal recognition


57 Examination of James Helme, Newport, 5 June, 1773, Gaspee Papers, Rhode Island State Archives. Bartlett, Records, VII. 172. Staples, Documentary History, p. 46, University microfilms, American Culture Series, University of Michigan.

58 Commissioners to Stephen Hopkins, Newport, 7 June. 1773, Commissioners to Metcalf Bowler, Newport, 7 June, 1773, Gaspee Papers. Rhode Island State Archives. Reference to Helme's appearance is found in Dexter, Stiles Diary, I, 380.


was understandable. The public seemed to share his chary approach to this dilemma. Despite his inclinations, two of his colleagues, James Helme and Metcalf Bowler, planned to make their appearance. The Reverend Mr. Stiles cautioned them:

I observed it was a very delicate Transaction and that if the Public could not have an intire Confidence in him [Bowler] and Judge Helme that they would stand firm, there would be great &c. He replied that he had reason to think, it was the finishing off of the affair—and that the Commissioners intended nothing more than to lay before the justices such Matters and Evidences as they had collected, and request them particularly to charge the Jurors at the next Sup. Court of Judicature with an inquiry &c. and so take Leave of the Affair. I hope he may be right.59

And right he was. On June 10 selected examinations were placed before the Superior Court by the commissioners. These were received by the Chief Justice, who decided to come after all, and three of his colleagues, James Helme, Metcalf Bowler, and J. C. Bennet. Deputy Governor Sessions was also present.60 The justices were given two depositions of Aaron Briggs, two of Patrick Earle and depositions from other crew members, Midshipman William Dickinson and Mariner Peter May, the justices were given the option of re-examining Dickinson if they so chose. Instead they later asked for the deposition of Samuel Tompkins, Samuel Thurston, Somerset and Jack.61

Another witness, Samuel Falkoner, was examined by three of the


59 Dexter, Stiles Diary, 10 June, 1773, I, 380.

60 Commissioners to Darius Sessions, 6 June, 1773, Gaspee Papers, Rhode Island State Archives.

61 The Report of the Commissioners to the King, Newport, Rhode Island, 22 June, 1773, Bartlett, Records, VII. 181.


commissioners after the superior court had handed down its opinion. Falkoner attempted to destroy the credibility of Aaron Briggs as a witness. Although he was from Bristol, Falkoner had boarded at Samuel Tompkins' farm on Prudence Island from April to July, 1772, as he had done the summer before. In addition to clearing his own name, Falkoner probably thought his testimony could help untangle the gnarled yarn which he believed Briggs had spun. He denied that he had accompanied Briggs on the night of the schooner's destruction. In fact, said Falkoner, Briggs had never left the farm either. He milked the cows at sunset and remained on the island the entire evening.

A few days after the burning, a group of people from Bristol came to the island and told Tompkins, and several of his servants, what had taken place at Namquit Point. Briggs had first heard of the incident at this time. Falkoner was quick to add that no names were mentioned; he did not suggest where Briggs might have heard them. His only admission was that he and Briggs had visited Potter's ropewalk in Bristol the summer of 1771. He casually dismissed Briggs ". . . as a person much addicted to lying.' 62

In addition to Falkoner's examination, the commissioners were once again aided by Darius Sessions in their efforts to tie up the loose ends of


62 Faulkner of Gould Island whom Wanton describes as "one Faulkner" is not to be confused with Samuel Falkoner of Bristol. Bartlett and Staples perhaps confuse him with Samuel Falkoner. Throughout their works they refer to him as Samuel Faulkner instead of Samuel Falkoner. The manuscript spelling is Samuel Falkoner.


their investigation. He related an incident which had occurred in March, 1772, and which he undoubtedly considered proof positive of William Dudingston's truculence. He referred to the written petition from several prominent Providence merchants,63 who protested the behavior of the navy officers stationed at Rhode Island. That very day. Sessions had carried the matter before the Chief Justice who had returned the following opinion:

. . . for any person whatever to come into the Colony, and, in the Body thereof, to exercise any Authority by Force of Arms, or otherwise, without shewing his Commission to the Governor, and (if a Customhouse officer) without being sworn into his Office, was guilty of a Tresspass, if not piracy. . . .64

After giving careful study to the examination, the justices gave their opinion. Only two depositions made mention of any individuals by name. Mariner Peter May referred to someone named Greene, and Aaron Briggs used the names Potter and Joseph and John Brown. According to the court, Briggs' statement was elicited amidst threats of punishment. The examination was also strewn with contradictions. Finally refutations from his owner, (Samuel Tompkins), Tompkins' relative (Samuel Thurston), and fellow


63 The names of the petitioners were John Brown, Nathan Angell, Joseph Nightengale, Job Smith, Thomas Greene, Ambrose Page, James Lovett, and Nicholas Brown. Although Bartlett and Staples do not mention the name of John Innes Clark, his was also included in the manuscript.
The dates of the Staples and Bartlett copies do not coincide with the manuscript either. Both editors give June 12, 1772, as the date, rather than June 12, 1773. Deposition of Darius Sessions, 12 June, 1773, Gaspee Papers, Rhode Island State Archives. Bartlett, Records, VII. 174-175. Staples, Documentary History, pp. 47-48, University microfilms, American Culture Series, University of Michigan.



workers (Somerset and Jack) sufficiently established proof in the court's judgment of Briggs' presence at home on June 9 and 10. Captain Linzee's refusal to permit Justice Bowler to examine the witness, convinced the court that there was nothing of substance to Briggs' statement; rather they inferred Linzee had taken what little information Briggs possessed, and had embellished it in an effort to make it as creditable as possible. Linzee's reluctance to surrender Briggs to the civil officials, thought the court, thus became all the more explicable.

The court was also of the opinion that the vagueness of Peter May's testimony rendered it valueless. He had not mentioned the Christian name of Greene. The difficulty was compounded, thought the justices, by the large number of Greenes who lived in Rhode Island. Shortly after the adjournment in January, Chief Justice Hopkins mentioned to Nathanael Greene of Coventry that his name had been implicated by testimony. Greene flatly denied the charge, maintaining that he could prove his whereabouts. Rufus Greene, Jr., an employee of the firm Jacob Greene and Co., was also compelled to give a statement before a local justice of the peace. If not to clear his own name, then certainly to disesteem Dudingston's.65

Interestingly, the justices did not take any notice of the names which Briggs had mentioned. In discounting the testimony of the black servant, they


65 Nathanael Greene to Samuel Ward, Coventry, 25 January, 1773, "Nathanael Greene's Letters to 'Friend Sammy' Ward," Clifford P. Monohon and Clarkson A. Collins, III, eds., Rhode Island History, XVI, No. 3 (July, 1957), 85.


apparently saw no need to make reference to the people whom he had accused. One of these people, according to the Reverend Mr. Stiles, could prove his innocence because a ". . . White Woman in the Family [could vouch for] his being abed with his wife at Bristol after Eleven o'clock that Night. . . ." 66

The justices concluded that the documents submitted to them ". . . do not induce a probable suspicion . . ." 67 The court vowed to take ". . . every legal effort in detecting and bringing to condign punishment, the persons concerned . . ." 68 Upon receipt of the opinion, the commissioners were confronted with the choices, whether to concur or demur. Even though the justices had invited them to review the opinion, they declined, eliminating any possible accusation that they had tried to supersede the superior court.69


66 Ezra Stiles to Rev, Elihu Spencer, at Trenton, New Jersey, Newport, 16 February, 1773, Dexter, Stiles Diary, 1, 350. Stiles was probably referring to Simeon Potter of Bristol whose name was implicated in the testimony of Aaron Briggs. Stiles' inference that a white woman (perhaps a servant) could vouch for Potter's presence at home on the evening in question implicitly discredited Briggs' statement because he was black, the suggestion being that his race made his story unreliable, whereas the white woman's was credible.

67 Opinion of the Justices of the Superior Court, 11 June, 1773, Gaspee Papers, Rhode Island Slate Archives. Bartlett, Records, VII, 175. Staples, Documentary History, p. 48, University microfilms, American Culture Series, University of Michigan.

68 Ibid.

69 Commissioners to the Chief Justice and Assistants, Newport, 12 June, 1773, Gaspee Papers, Rhode Island State Archives. Another manuscript copy is in Manuscript Records, Gaspee Commission papers, John Carter Brown Library, Brown University. Bartlett, Records, VII, 176. Staples, Documentary History, p. 48, University microfilms, American Culture Series, University of Michigan.


In so doing, they once again reiterated their role as an Investigative body of Jurors.

With the opinion of the superior court now in hand, drafting the report to the King became the next order of business. Of all the commissioners, Chief Justice Frederick Smythe was the only one who revealed a predisposition to assist the ministry in its attempt to reveal the identity of the lawbreakers. It was Smythe who had first asked whether the grand jury had been charged with an investigation into the Gaspee burning. The ultimate outcome of the commissioners' deliberations disappointed him. During a discussion with Collector Dudley, Smythe perceived an opportunity to resuscitate the investigation. Shortly after their meeting Dudley sent Smythe a lengthy ". . . review of some of the hindrances and obstructions which the officers of the Navy and Revenue have met with in . . ." Rhode Island.70

He had in mind a customs house cutter, the Liberty, seized and destroyed by Rhode Islanders in 1769. The perfunctory air with which the civil officials treated such lawlessness, struck Dudley as being outrageous. According to the collector, this incident, along with numerous others, was illustrative of Rhode Island's flagrant disregard for the navigation laws and customs officials. He asked Smythe to.". . . consider this . . . and draw


70 Charles Dudley to Frederick Smythe, Rhode Island, 12 June, 1773, Frederick Smythe Papers, American Philosophical Society. This letter was recently discovered by Larry Gerlach. For a printed copy see his article, "Charles Dudley and the Customs Quandary in Pre-Revolutionary Rhode Island," Rhode Island History, XXX, No. 2 (Spring, 1971). 53-59.


Your conclusions. . . ." 71 Dudley said of the Liberty affair, ". . . I have always considered [it] as a principal encouragement and perhaps the chief cause of the subsequent and unhappy fate of Lieutenant Dudingston and his Majesty's Schooner Gaspee." 72 Smythe took these words to heart.

On June 21, the New Jersey Justice threatened to prolong the investigation with a new motion. He proposed that his colleagues undertake an investigation into the attack on the St. John by Rhode Islanders in 1764, as he considered it a possible primary cause in the Gaspee attack. Why Smythe chose the St. John incident is not entirely clear.73 Perhaps in another


71 Ibid.

72 Ibid.

73 Although it is Mr. Gerlach's purpose to cast additional light upon the Smythe proposal, he does not offer any additional evidence of substance. The only revelation which emerges from this letter is that Dudley was the inspiration for Smythe's action. There are several problems however, left unsolved. For instance, when Smythe made his motion, he mentioned that he had acquired his information ". . . on Saturday last." Mr. Gerlach suggests that this was a reference to Dudley's conversation and subsequent letter to Smythe.
Yet the Saturday before his motion of June 21 was June 19, and not June 12, the date of the letter (if we take Smythe's statement, ". . . on Saturday last . . ." to be correct). There is another problem. In the letter of June 12 Dudley speaks at length of the Liberty. Yet in his motion of June 21, Smythe suggests that the commissioners investigate the St. John incident.
Perhaps there were two meetings, one which led to the letter of June 12, and perhaps another of June 19, the following Saturday. Smythe might have been persuaded at this second meeting to mention the St. John rather than the Liberty. Such a maneuver would reopen the investigation, using 1764 (the date of the St. John's attack) rather than 1769 (Liberty burning) as the beginning of a new inquiry. An investigation of the facts dating back to 1764 would have brought the entire relationship of the customs officers and Rhode Islanders from the time of the commercial reforms of 1763, under complete scrutiny.


conversation with Dudley he was advised to make reference in his motion to the St. John rather than the Liberty. To Investigate this occurrence of 1764, as well as the burning of the Liberty of 1769 would necessitate an exhaustive inquiry into the activities of customs officers, Rhode Islanders, and the civil officials during the past nine years. From the standpoint of time and energy alone, the implications of the motion were extremely menacing, particularly to Rhode Island, which had a history of such attacks upon royal vessels. Governor Wanton realized the dire implications for his colony.

Colonel Joseph Wanton, Jr., who was lieutenant governor of Rhode Island in 1764, and fort gunner Daniel Vaughan were both knowledgeable of the St. John incident. Wanton was confident that a conversation with them would resolve any uncertainties that the commissioners might harbor regarding the St. John. Smythe's motion had created last-minute doubts and second thoughts for the others. He stood firm: Governor Wanton remained adamant also. Believing such an investigation to be unproductive, Horsmanden quietly concurred with the Governor. Judge Auchmuty soon aligned with the majority.

Chief Justice Peter Oliver had been called away to Massachusetts where he had a commitment to preside at the circuit court.74 Had he been present, he undoubtedly would have lent a sympathetic ear to the Smythe


74 Dexter. Stiles Diary, I, 384. Peter Oliver to Lord Dartmouth, Middleborough, 20 July, 1773, Colonial Office. 5:762. folio 771-74. Edwards, Gaspee Papers, Rhode Island Historical Society.


proposal. Although his absence unquestionably doomed the motion Frederick Smythe, the commission's maverick, was not inclined to gloss over what he thought to be in the best interest of the inquiry--simply to avoid a confrontation with colonial officials or disaffected segments of the population. Dudley's letter had fortified Smythe's unwavering determination to stand firm on his principles.

Smythe's perseverance surfaced again the day after the report to the King was drafted. Presented with a new piece of evidence which he deemed important, he smugly passed it on to his fellow commissioners:

I desire the enclosed, may be inserted in the journal of our proceedings. I am sorry it is not in my power to meet you, this morning. As this minute contains only the plain facts, I hope there will be no objection to the request of Frederick Smythe.75

Unfortunately, he did not name the item in his letter. One can only speculate upon its content. Perhaps it was his letter from Dudley, perhaps some other bit of information which he thought might dispel the objections cited by his colleagues. The item did not appear in the journal of the proceedings.76

The commissioner's report to the King was enclosed in a letter to Lord Dartmouth.77 They all agreed that they had invested more time in the


75 Frederick Smythe to the Commissioners, Newport, 23 June, 1773, Gaspee Papers, Rhode Inland State Archives, Bartlett, Records, VII, 177, Staples, Documentary History, p. 48, University microfilms, American Culture Series, University of Michigan.

76 Although the proceedings did not take note of his communication to the other commissioners, Smythe's motion would have great impact in the final report to the King.

77 Commissioners to Lord Dartmouth, 22 June, 1773, Gaspee Papers, Rhode Island State Archives. Bartlett, Records, VII, 177-78. Staples, Documentary History, pp. 151-52, University microfilms, American Culture Series, University of Michigan.


inquiry than their own personal fortunes would sustain. Time and money were two reasons they cited in their decision to close their investigation. Another was the inference that their efforts had yielded all the information that there was.

The commissioners assiduously attempted to answer all of the questions which the Crown had put to them in their instructions. Where precisely, was the crime committed? The commission and instructions placed the Gaspee at Newport at the time of the attack. The report rectified this error; the vessel was destroyed some twenty-three miles from Newport, in the township of Warwick, in the county of Kent, about six miles from Providence. Was the attack premeditated, and was it conducted in a public manner? According to the statements of notable people from Providence (the commissioners probably had the deputy governor and the three attorneys in mind), there was nothing public about the activity of the attackers. Nor was there any proof to support the charge that the attack was anything other than a spontaneous occurrence, precipitated by the Gaspee's running aground which they designated as an "unforeseen event. ..." 78

Exactly what took place? At about 1:00 a.m. on the morning of June 10, several men of relatively high station, assisted by a number of other


78 The Report of the Commissioners to the King, Newport, Rhode Island, 22 June, 1773, Bartlett, Records, VII, 179.


people, several of whom were black, boarded the Gaspee, wounded the commander, attacked the crew, evacuated them on shore with their commander, and set the torch to the schooner.

The efforts of the civil magistrates to discover the participants was a special concern for the Crown. The commissioners could report that the colony's leaders had behaved admirably throughout. Although the earlier efforts to obtain information from townspeople in Providence were not successful, Sessions conducted a diligent inquiry by examining several Gaspee crew members. Gathering evidence was not his only concern. He made arrangements for the crew's safe conduct to the Beaver, and for the disposition of stores salvaged from the wreckage of the Gaspee. Nor had he ignored Dudingston's personal comfort while the latter was confined at Pawtuxet.

The commissioners' evaluation of Governor Wanton's role was equally complimentary. Upon learning what had occurred, he issued a proclamation with a reward for the discovery of the participants. His later attempt to secure custody of Aaron Briggs for the purposes of interrogation, proved ineffectual, and concluded his efforts to find the perpetrators of the crime.79

The conduct of Darius Sessions and Joseph Wanton was somewhat easier to defend than the behavior of the justices of the superior court. The commissioners explained that after the grand jury was empanelled in October,


79 Ibid.


1772, they were summarily dismissed with no charge to examine the Gaspee incident. Because Chief Justice Hopkins was out of town and unable to preside, the attorney general did not wish to bring the matter to the attention of the court. The report did not allude to the fact that no charge was ever made, even after the Chief Justice returned, or that the presiding justice (James Helme) claimed that he had forgotten about the Gaspee.

Determining the causes of the Gaspee's ill-fortune was another responsibility which the King expected of his commissioners. Five probable causes were put forth. Some fiercely independent Rhode Island merchants smarted under the bridle of any royal economic controls. A second factor, an expanded customs service which now utilized navy officers, augmented the animosity to the commercial restrictions. Short-fused merchants fought back; a case in point was the destruction of the customhouse boat, the Liberty.

The Liberty was cited as a third cause. Because no serious attempt was ever made to apprehend the guilty persons, the unconcern of the colonial officials had encouraged others to contemplate such acts for the future.80 As a fourth cause the commissioners accused the civil magistrates of encouraging the people to commit acts of lawlessness. For instance, Chief Justice Hopkins had been asked to give his opinion of the validity of Dudingston's authority to serve as a customs officer. He asserted that for Dudingston to go about his


80 Ibid., p. 180. That the Liberty was even mentioned in the report was proof of Smythe's influence on the other commissioners. Governor Wanton, for instance, would not have supported the inclusion of anything which detracted from the colony's case.


duties without having personally displayed his credentials to the Governor, made him guilty of a "tresspass if not piracy." 81 Such an interpretation, the report contended, might have appeared as a license from the court for some to take the law into their own hands. As a final cause the commissioners were of the opinion that Dudingston suffered from an ". . . intemperate, if not a reprehensible zeal to aid the Revenue service . . ." 82

Determining specifically who was involved in the burning was another of the commissioners' responsibilities. The scant evidence made the opinion of the Superior Court a foregone conclusion. Much controversy had accompanied the testimony of Aaron Briggs. While the commissioners did not think it appropriate to concur with, or take issue with the Superior Court, they did take the opportunity to offer their own judgment of Briggs' credibility. They did not outrightly discount his deposition as false, although some circumstances surrounding it created doubts for them. Captain Linzee's use of intimidation to wrest dubious facts from Briggs, whom they called a person of questionable character, was one reason; another was the deposition itself which they said was fraught with half-truths and contradictions. How, they asked, could Briggs have had time to participate in the crime, and return home unnoticed before sunrise, when Namquit Point was a considerable distance from Prudence Island where he lived? 83


81 Ibid.

82 Ibid.

83 Prudence Island is some six miles from Namquit (Gaspee) Point. Such a trek in a small boat might have been highly difficult as the commission report suggests.


The importance which the Crown had given to Briggs' story did not permit it to be quietly forgotten. Frederick Smythe and Daniel Horsmanden probably discussed it at length on their voyages together to and from Newport. Much as both men would have liked to believe Briggs, they found it impossible. Smythe said that ". . . the credibility of his testimony is exceedingly questionable in every article, and upon the whole I cannot help thinking that our enquiry is rather disgraced than aided by his information. . . ." 84

Like Smythe, Horsmanden was inclined to disbelief also but he demanded more convincing proofs than his colleague from New Jersey. He had made the statement that Briggs' testimony could probably be successfully impugned by his master "a person of undoubted Credit. . . ." 85 Nonetheless, Horsmanden was amenable to hearing both sides. He wanted to ". . . bring the witnesses face to face, considering the Commission required, we should report all the circumstances attending the affair.86


84 Frederick Smythe to the Earl of Dartmouth, 8 February, 1773, F. W. Ricord and W. Nelson, eds., New Jersey Documents, First Series, X, 398.

85 Daniel Horsmanden to Lord Dartmouth, 20 February, 1773, Edmund B. O'Callaghan, ed., Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New York (Albany: Weed Parsons & Co., 1856-1883), VIII, 352. Like Stiles' comments upon the Briggs testimony, Horsmanden's also betray a prejudice toward Briggs. The word of Mr. Tompkins, the white master, was accepted by the commissioners, who did not even request an interview with him. There is the possibility that Briggs' statement was discredited for the same reasons, i.e., because he was black and indentured. His testimony was not so garbled as the commissioners would lead one to believe.

86 Ibid.


Therefore it was surely a serendipitous occasion for Horsmanden, when some time after the commissioners had returned home, he found himself detained at Newport while awaiting a favorable wind and weather to New York. As the result of a conversation he had had with a navy captain in Newport who professed to know a great deal about Aaron Briggs and his confinement aboard the Beaver, Horsmanden's doubts were entirely removed.87

The navy captain explained that Samuel Tompkins, Briggs' master, along with Somerset and Jack, two fellow servants, went on board the navy vessel to speak with the captain in Briggs' presence. The master and servants denied Briggs' story. While Briggs "prevaricated much . . .” 88, he still stood his ground.

After ushering Tompkins and the two servants from the vessel, the captain accused the black man of being a fraud and commanded him to tell the truth. Before long ". . . he confessed twas all a fiction . . ." 89, an admission he hoped would spare him the punishment which he knew awaited him. Nonetheless Linzee and some of the Beaver's crewmen were convinced of his culpability. Briggs' compulsion to admit to something which he had not done resulted from the apparent surety of his accusers that he was indeed one of


87 Daniel Horsmanden to the Earl of Dartmouth. 23 July, 1773, Edmund B. O'Callaghan, ed., New York Documents, VIII, 390. Horsmanden was probably referring to Captain James Ayscough of the Swan. Briggs was detained on this vessel for a time.

88 Ibid.

89 Ibid.


the people involved.

Horsmanden was finally satisfied. But before the ministry had the occasion to share this intelligence from the New York justice, Dartmouth took the initiative in demanding more information regarding Briggs' testimony:

It is His Majesty's Pleasure that you do transmit to me, with all convenient dispatch, an authentic copy of the minutes of your proceedings on the enquiry, together with copies of the examinations of Aaron Briggs, Patrick Earls, Peter May & William Dickinson; and of the depositions of Samuel Thompkins, Saml Thurston, and of Sommerset and Jack the indented Servants; which examinations & depositions are referred to in the report made to you by the justices of the Superior Court of Judicature and Court of Assize in the Colony of Rhode Island.90

The depositions were not dispatched to England until April, 1774, almost a year after the report to the King had been drafted, and nearly two years after the Gaspee had been burned. The Governor gave reasons for the delay: along with the dispatches Dartmouth had asked for an estimated account of expenses of each of the commissioners while at Newport. The Governor explained that the amount of time needed to collect these accounts, necessitated by the long distance of the other commissioners from Newport, detained him from forwarding all the material sooner.91 Perhaps Dartmouth welcomed the delay. He had stated earlier that


90 Lord Dartmouth to the Commissioners of Inquiry at Rhode Island, Whitehall, 17 August, 1773, Colonial Office, 5:1285. folio 401-04, Edwards, Gaspee Papers, Rhode Island Historical Society.

91 Joseph Wanton to Lord Dartmouth, Rhode Island, 15 April, 1774, Colonial Office, 5:1285, folio. 433-36, Edwards, Gaspee Papers, Rhode Island Historical Society.


should any indictments be handed down in Rhode Island, he would not permit the transportation of persons to England for their trials.92 William Gordon, the eighteenth century historian, congratulated the Secretary on his good fortune, which meant that he would not be placed in the precarious position of having to challenge the clause in the commission providing for overseas trials.93

With such a friend as Lord Dartmouth in the State department, Rhode Islanders had little in reality to fear. Even the commissioners continually professed their commitment to an impartial investigation which, they said, did not include handing down indictments on their own initiative. As Chief Justice Oliver remarked, the men who presided at the inquiry shared a common reverence for the law and viewed themselves as judicious, sober, and impartial investigators, rather than as agents of a vindictive ministry. The presence on the commission of men skilled in the law had to be infinitely preferable to personnel from the navy and army serving as commissioners. Stiles concurred with Oliver:

But had this Commission been in the hands of Adm. Montague and a few Tars, they might have only applied to some single bought up Justice of Peace, privately got a Warrant, called Troops from N. York, and traversed Providence and Warwick, & seized such persons as a Negro or a Dudingston might accuse, and whip him aboard ship and so to England for trial.94


92 B. D. Bargar, Lord Dartmouth and the American Revolution (Columbia, S.C.: The University of South Carolina Press, 1965), p. 81.

93 Ibid.

94 Dexter, Stiles Diary, I, 284.


Admiral Montagu's role in the transactions was minimal. Despite his promises in late May to come to Newport in June, he never arrived. It seemed doubtful that he really intended to, because the purpose of having Commodore Keeler assume his duties at Newport was to avoid the inconvenience of his having to take such an extended leave from Boston. Commodore Keeler's involvement in the commission was insignificant also, largely by his own choice. He feared arrest and had prudently avoided putting foot on shore.

The commissioners themselves gave almost no cause for alarm, save their presence. Civil order in Newport did not necessitate a call for troops either in January or June. But had there been some public clamor or disorder, the commissioners' probably would have avoided the use of troops. When eventually given another opportunity to exert their authority, they shied away from the challenge; either out of principle or fear, they stoutheartedly refused the invitation of the Superior Court to review the opinion of the evidence. In fact, their most faithful spectator, the Reverend Mr. Stiles, remarked that the commissioners had ". . . done so very little, and [had] finished with so much Stillness, that we scarcely know what they have done." 95 So inglorious was their departure that they did not even find time to mention in the journal of their proceedings that they were closing their investigation.

In spite of the many circumstances which should have allayed the


95 Ibid., p. 391.


apprehension of Rhode Islanders, misgivings persisted. Stiles probably received more reassurances from Peter Oliver than had anyone else, save those who held positions in the colony's government. Yet Stiles remained in the end unconvinced of the commission's integrity. He attributed the innocuous conclusion of the inquiry to orders from the ministry that the commissioners not press their responsibilities with too much zeal. This was speculation on Stiles' part. But he did seem closer to the truth when he suggested that the commission had ". . . given an extensive Alarm to all the Assemblies upon the Continent . . ." 96 The convening of the commission of inquiry in January, 1773, had undeniably terminated the period of quiescence which had distinguished the brief span of time between the Boston Massacre and the burning of the Gaspee.97


96 Ibid., p. 384.

97 Eugene Wulsin has explored this idea in his article in two parts, "The Political Consequences of the Burning of the Gaspee," Rhode Island History, III, No. 1 and 2 (January and April, 1944), 1-11 and 55-64.

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